What is a Sixth Sense?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A sixth sense is a sense beyond the conventionally accepted five physiological senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Many people use the term to describe an especially sensitive sense of intuition or perception that allows people to predict events or pick up on subtle cues that others miss. People also sometimes describe extra-sensory perception (ESP) as a sixth sense, stressing the idea that it is paranormal in nature.

Fortune tellers claim to have a sixth sense that allows them to see the future.
Fortune tellers claim to have a sixth sense that allows them to see the future.

In fact, researchers have discovered several physiological senses beyond the well-known five. For example, equilibrioception, the human sense of balance, is sometimes termed a sixth sense. Researchers have also discovered a special structure in the nose called the vomeronasal organ which appears to pick up on specific hormone signals. In 1999, researchers at Harvard suggested that humans might have communicated with hormone signals at some point in their evolutionary history.

Equilibrioception is the body's ability to know how it is positioned and maintain balance.
Equilibrioception is the body's ability to know how it is positioned and maintain balance.

True physiological sixth senses aside, some people believe that the more ephemeral version of this sense allows people to predict the future, sometimes with varying degrees of success. When someone has an especially prescient hunch, for example, someone may say that he or she has “a sixth sense.” It is also used to explain paranormal phenomena like clairvoyance, the believed ability to see into the future. In this sense, people may also use the term “second sight” to describe it.

Communicating telepathically would be considered a sixth sense.
Communicating telepathically would be considered a sixth sense.

Numerous studies have been conducted on extra-sensory perception, to discover whether or not people really can predict things. Most of these studies have concluded that, in the sense of a prediction or hunch which cannot be explained with rational means, the sixth sense does not exist. However, some people are very good at identifying subtle cues in a situation which they can use to their advantage, and people with less perceptive personalities might mistake this skill as something paranormal.

Smell is among the five scientifically documented senses.
Smell is among the five scientifically documented senses.

One of the most common pieces of evidence mustered to support the idea of the sixth sense is an apocryphal story about a friend of a friend who “got a bad feeling” and acted on it, avoiding some calamitous fate. This is an example of a cognitive bias known as the confirmation bias, which leads people to discard data that does not confirm their beliefs. For every bad feeling that pays off, in other words, people have many more bad feelings and hunches that never amount to anything, but they forget about them and focus on the one that confirmed their belief in uncanny intuition.

Close friends may develop a form of sixth sense based on shared knowledge.
Close friends may develop a form of sixth sense based on shared knowledge.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon190617

Nice topic,and the EEG should be recorded with the 'Instant EEG.' It can help us to know the activity of the brain during the sixth sense.

BambooForest

I imagine that confirmation bias does have a lot to do with people who claim to have an intuition sixth sense, yet at the same time I have known many people who have experienced things they cannot explain.

hyrax53

I remember when the Sixth Sense the movie came out, and I heard about the ending from some idiot teacher about a year later, still before I saw it. I spent the entire time seeing the details and clues, which was interesting, but it still ruined it for me.

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